Outstanding In Their Field



Music Festival Business ~ October 2013

The complexities of festival production are definitely not for the faint of heart. Arranging a massive outdoor party for several thousand sun-toasted fans, with entertainment by multiple artists on multiple stages, calls for nothing less than a tightly choreographed tango between dozens of different providers, each with its own areas of expertise and its own agenda.


For sound and production companies, festivals can be something of a mixed blessing. It’s a high-profile, big money gig that can be rife with endless minute details and potential landmines. And as most pro sound providers will tell you, it’s easily as much work as a multi-week tour, all jam-packed into a single-intensive weekend.


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“You can’t be afraid of hard work, that’s for sure,” adds Paul Owen, vice president of Livonia, MI-based Thunder Audio (Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Orion, Detroit Electronic Music Festival). “You have to be aware going into it that festivals mean long hours and lots of work.”


YOU MAY ASK YOURSELF, HOW DID I GET HERE?”

For many of the larger sound companies in the US, their associations with particular festivals have deep roots.


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“We bring a lot of years of experience to the table, and our relationships with these promoters go back a long way,” Owen said. “We had been working with Lollapalooza’s organizers for quite a while and had done some earlier festivals with them which were very successful.”


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IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GEAR...ISN’T IT?

The question often asked is whether festival promoters select a particular sound company based on specific equipment. While no company wants to be pigeonholed as being a slave to a particular brand, it is once again a question of trust, with most sound providers sticking to road-tested industry standards with established track records.


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For mixing consoles, the major, established brands also predominate. “We get a lot of call for the Avid Venue Profile, as well as the Yamaha PM5D and the Soundcraft Vi6 digital console,” says Thunder Audio’s Owen.


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PA systems tend to be more of a variable, with different companies committing to different manufacturers’ ecosystems. Eighth Day Sound sticks with d&b audiotechnik, while Thunder Audio mixes it up between Meyer Sound’s Milo, JBL’s VTX, and the RCF TT arrays. Clearwing’s Baumgardner points to “L-Acoustics on almost every rider I see, followed by VerTec.”


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PLAN AHEAD, KEEP A COOL HEAD

As with most large and complex endeavors, the secret to success is planning. Not surprisingly, preparation for a major festival like Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo begins long before the trucks pull away from the sound company’s loading dock. “On average, we’ll begin our initial planning two to three months in advance for the larger major festivals,” said Owen. “Much depends on how quickly we can match the requested equipment with the promoter. Even then, you’re typically still working and reworking the lists even as late as a week or two before the show. Sometimes a band or an artist will request some last-minute changes and we’ll have to fine tune things accordingly.”


“We do a lot of advance planning,” he continues. “You’re inevitably going to be confronted with your share of last-minute surprises, and the more you can set up contingency plans and such, the better prepared you are to adjust and adapt to changes.”


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Not surprisingly, smaller metropolitan festivals are considerably less time-intensive.


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ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL

Festivals come in all shapes and sizes, and what works for the multiple stages in the relatively remote desert spread of Coachella may not be as effective in the urban downtown confines of Chicago’s Lollapalooza Festival. Proximity to neighbors is always a consideration in more populated areas, typically calling for a smaller main PA with one or more delays.


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“Local ordinances are always a consideration, and so is coverage,” agrees Owen. “Sometimes the promoter’s original placement has things firing into residential areas, for example; in that case, we do whatever we can to change that. Other times, location and logistics will impact the way we work more than the actual selection of equipment. We did a festival in downtown Detroit, and the restrictions there prevented us from doing a soundcheck in the afternoon because it would have disturbed the people working in the office buildings across the way. So we had to wait until after 4 p.m. on Friday to get started.”


Planning out coverage patterns and array angles ahead of time is a well-used tactic.


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Many of today’s larger festivals have grown to the point where multiple stages running simultaneously is the norm.


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BE CAREFUL OUT THERE

In recent months, our industry has seen an increase in reports of stage and truss collapses, including a number of high-profile incidents resulting in injuries and even deaths. For most veteran sound providers, safety has long been de rigueur, but these types of incidents drive home the importance of planning and preparation. As Thunder Audio’s Owen observes, cooperation and coordination between all the show’s different providers is key.


“We get together with all the vendors in lighting, sound, video, staging, and so forth, and make sure everyone has a plan in place to cover a wide range of contingencies,” he says. “We get them to send us a drawing of the stage, and we’ll get with the lighting company, for example, and discuss where we would like to have the lights placed, and they’ll tell us whether it’s feasible and how much weight we can load where, and so forth.”


Owen offers a case in point: “In the days leading up to one particular festival, we were anticipating three days of harsh weather,” he recounts. “Live Nation put a plan in place that categorized different courses of action depending on what the wind was doing, as protection for the structure, the equipment, and of course, the patrons. So for example, if the winds reached a certain speed we would lower the video walls. At a higher speed, we would lower the soft goods and PA system; higher than that and we would begin to evacuate the area. We always have a plan like that in place, and last year at Lollapalooza, when we had a really strong wind storm come through, they were able to evacuate the stage and site in record time, and no one got hurt.


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THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT

Despite the fact that many well-known festivals have been running for years, the consensus among most of the major sound providers is that the festival industry in the United States is still in its relative infancy. “I think the market in the U.S. has really just started to take off,” said Owen. “In Europe, you’ve got a very short season, only about three to five months, and they’ve really figured out how to make the most of it, for the fans, the artists and the promoters. Here, we’ve got a much larger geographic area, and we’ve also got a climate advantage. The festival market can actually run all year here in the US. We’ve only just begun to tap into that potential.”


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